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Iraq Prepares to Vote on Constitution

What are Iraqis saying about the Oct. 15 vote on a new draft constitution in a national referendum?

Guest:

Anthony Shadid, reporter for The Washington Post and author of Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

On Saturday, Iraqis will vote on a new draft constitution in a national referendum. If approved, the next step would be to elect a fully constitutional government by December 15th. This week, we'll talk with reporters in different parts of that country to hear what Iraqis are saying about the new constitution and about the vote.

And we're going to start with Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid. He's also the author of "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War." And he's with us now from Baghdad.

And, Anthony, thanks for joining us today.

Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (The Washington Post; Author, "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War"): My pleasure.

CONAN: We're going to be asking you about an area that's known generally as the Sunni triangle. I know you've been traveling around, trying to gauge how Iraqis are feeling in the week headed towards the vote. What's going on?

Mr. SHADID: Well, you know, it's an interesting picture, especially when you contrast it to what happened in January. There seemed to be a little bit more energy behind the campaigning in January for the election that chose the National Assembly. There seems to be a more kind of subdued mood right now in places in Baghdad and around. You know, the question, I think, back in January was whether Iraqis were going to vote. The question today is a little more complicated. It's whether they're going to vote, how they're going to vote and what they're voting for. And I guess what I've been struck by the conversation recently is you ask what they're voting for, you often hear less--something about the blueprint of a future state and more perhaps that the constitution is a means to an end. It's a means to a more stable country. It's a means to better services. It's--you know, a more normal life that is probably the bigger priority for a lot of people right now.

CONAN: Has the constitution been read and understood by many Iraqis?

Mr. SHADID: Well, that's a good question, and I was struck by how few people have read it. Actually, when you ask them how they're going to vote, often, the first thing they'll say is that, `We haven't even seen the constitution. We haven't read it. We don't know what's in it.' It's on--some places in western Iraq in Sunni-dominated areas, there was actually a protest of people who had not seen the constitution yet. They felt like they couldn't make a choice, yes or not, because they didn't know what was in it. Supposedly five million copies have been distributed or are being distributed of the constitution, but until now, they're living in a process that might drag on for days yet. There are still changes being debated about the constitution itself, that the constitution might be changed before the referendum on Saturday.

CONAN: You have an advantage over most reporters there, in that you speak Arabic, and I wonder, what do you hear from people? Do you they see this as an endorsement of political groups that were active in supporting the constitution or even individual politicians or an act of faith in the country itself or as something that is being imposed upon them from outside?

Mr. SHADID: Well, I think it's interesting how you put that question, because I think there is a certain sense among the political leaders in the country that they can rally their communities behind them, and I think, you know, as is often the case in Iraq, it's a little more complicated when you get to, you know, the ground level. In conversations today, for instance, you heard some Shiites saying that they were not going to vote at all in the referendum, that they were somewhat cynical about the political process. They were discouraged. They thought this was more of a game that they've been watching for months and even years now.

CONAN: And that's interesting because...

Mr. SHADID: ...(Unintelligible).

CONAN: ...at least from the outside, Shiites are seen as the big winners.

Mr. SHADID: Exactly. Exactly. And you also had a Sunni merchant who told me that he was going to vote because he felt the constitution is the only way to bring about the rule of law in the country, that is the only way to end what's basically been this interim that's dragged on since the fall of Saddam in 2003. So it's a little bit of a mixed picture, you know, in the sense--you know, in the street. I think what the big question out there, though, right now is going to be how the Sunni community does vote, whether they vote at all and, if they do vote, how they're going to vote, whether they vote yes or no, and that's, you know, unclear still at this point. I think there's some reservations among Sunni Arabs that by voting, they somehow legitimize the process, and (technical difficulties) to do that among those voters, their last chance to stop a constitution that they feel is a threat (technical difficulties) towards their vision of the country.

CONAN: We're talking with Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post about the upcoming referendum in Iraq on the country's proposed constitution. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Anthony, your line was cutting in and out there. Going back to January, the Sunni community largely boycotted the elections at that time, partly for feeling outcast and partly because they felt threatened by this process. This time around, we know that many more Sunnis have registered to vote, and are they being threatened this time?

Mr. SHADID: You know, there are definitely conflicting currents out there. There are still threats against people (technical difficulties) places like Tikrit, which was Saddam's hometown, warning people who cast ballots that they would be killed. You're also seeing groups like the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the main Sunni Arab factions, that's trying to get out the vote, trying to get people to go to the polls and vote no. I think you also see a current within the community that is just disenchanted with the whole process, that they're discouraged and they didn't feel like it matters one way or the other; that even if they vote no, the constitution is a preordained--it's preordained. You know, it's a foregone conclusion about how it's going to turn out.

So I think you see definitely a mixed picture there, and it is a big question, because there's no--I don't think there's much doubt that a majority in the entire country will approve the constitution, but if (technical difficulties) two-thirds majority in three provinces and three provinces could be--you know, the Sunnis are a majority in at least three provinces--if two-thirds of those vote no, then the constitution is rejected, so that really is a (technical difficulties) area to watch as we head towards Saturday.

CONAN: Is our impression from outside correct that almost all of the political organization seems to be on regional, sectional and confessional lines?

Mr. SHADID: Well, I think that's--you know, there's been a really interesting development you do see in Iraq these days that politics are very rarely organized along national lines; in other words, it's really sect and ethnicity--religious sect and ethnicity, and by that, I mean, the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Pretty much, political activism rotates around these (unintelligible) anymore, so there is ...(unintelligible) along communal, ethnic and sectarian lines that, you know, it's always been a part of Iraq's political landscape but not to this degree, and I think there's a possibility this constitution may, you know, really demonstrate that in a forced way, how much--how hard--like how the lines between those sects and ethnicities have hardened.

CONAN: So that groups that existed, I guess, before the war, before occupation--well, in a sense, I guess the Baath was a national movement of a sort, but dominated, of course, by Sunnis, but there were Pan-Arabists, there were Communists, socialists of various stripes--all kinds of organizations. Those, you say, have been subsumed into these sectional characteristics?

Mr. SHADID: That's right. I mean, you point out the Communists. The Communists are a good example of a party that wasn't ostensibly sectarian. It didn't have a kind of a broader mandate or a broader reputation that can often transcend these ethnic and sectarian lines. It's just--you know, the Communist Party doesn't really have an audience anymore. You really don't have any movement--I guess the best way to put it is there's no leader in Iraq at this point that's really speaking in a national voice which is a--it is a divergence from the past. There's nobody that can claim to have significant representation that will cross those lines. You know, how that plays out in the future is a question, but, you know, when we talk about reconciliation or we talk about the constitution being a means to reconciliation, it's difficult how that process will actually begin when so much is being organized around sect and ethnicity.

CONAN: I know you're planning to go next to the city of Balad. Tell us about why you're planning to go there.

Mr. SHADID: You know, Balad is one of the few areas right now that probably is accessible for journalists and (technical difficulties) what is usually called the Sunni triangle is also a mixed town where there is a Shiite community within the town. The military's interested in getting the vote out. In some ways, it's a microcosm of what we might see on Saturday, how the Sunnis vote, how the Shiites vote, whether the Sunnis turn out, and I think it's a big question right now. There is a lot of confusion out there at this point on what's being voted for and what's being, you know, determined, and I think it'll be interesting to see how that--you know, whether that's the case in Balad as well as other parts of the country.

CONAN: If we can, we'll try to call you back later in the week to find out what you found out and maybe even get a better phone line.

Mr. SHADID: OK. ...(Unintelligible).

CONAN: Anthony Shadid, thank you very much for being with us today. We appreciate you staying up to talk with us.

Mr. SHADID: My pleasure.

CONAN: Anthony Shadid is a reporter for The Washington Post. He's the author also of "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadows of America's War." And he joined us from his office in Baghdad. Throughout the week, we'll be checking in with reporters in various regions of Iraq to see how they will react come Saturday to the vote on the referendum on Iraq's constitution.

I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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